Boutique Planet

The upscaling of everything

The same aesthetic applies to electronic gadgetry. Unlike design in the '50s, when faith in science and technology was celebrated with a space-agey sensibility applied to everything from toasters to tail fins, high-end '90s technology complements the boutique aesthetic by being simple, and most of all, unobtrusive. Kitchen appliances are specially designed to blend in with the cabinetry; oversized TVs get hidden inside "entertainment centers" that look antique armoirs; and the smallest cell phones tuck into shirt pockets. If things must show, they should pass for an art object, such as Bang and Olufsen's Brancusi-like speakers. But preferably, a home is prewired with recessed speakers in every room (or even better, with electronic remote-control systems). An article a few years back on Ralph Lauren's New York abode depicted a place so streamlined that nothing technological, it was noted--not so much as a light switch or thermostat, and least of all a TV remote--was on view. It embodied an ideal of technology at the end of the 20th century equivalent to an impeccable butler who hovers attentively, but knows the art of not creating a presence.

Only the very poor and the very rich can live a spartan life, and among the latter, this ideal can get taken to absurd extremes. A bathroom featured in a home magazine wasn't so much a bathroom as a temple where ritual ablutions took place, and so the homeowner was obligated to bring her towel, toothbrush, and such in from another room. For those who subscribe to this kind of conspicuous inconspicuousness, the product promises not to impress its image upon the purchaser. To put it in couture terms, it's the difference between a glitzy Versace and something by Jil Sander or Yohji Yamamoto. While the Versace wears the woman, the truly fashion-conscious will tell you that a really good piece of clothing transforms its wearer without calling attention to itself. A spare and unobtrusive aesthetic means flaunting not one's stuff, but oneself.

By tending toward expensive products that look deceptively austere, and indulging "natural," anti-technological tastes with disposable income earned in Information Age jobs, a case could be made that boutique consumers are using their money to obscure their own success and the terms on which they earned it. More than mere modesty, it's a circumspect approach to wealth that may contain a certain element of fear in the face of a gap between rich and poor wider than that in any other industrialized country. At any rate, there's little stock placed in showing off money; the point of wealth is increasingly to bolster one's sense of privacy, security, and mobility.

On Top of the World

Peace of mind. In Land Cruiser, it's factory installed. It's the capable feeling of its large tires and muscular stance....It's being able to see above traffic, and the solid feeling that only a 4,800 pound vehicle can provide.... It's knowing that the Land Cruiser will take you most anywhere and get you home again. What's more, Land Cruiser does its job not with drama, but with ease, elegance and composure so those inside can maintain theirs. And that may be the best feeling of all.

--from the sales brochure for the 1996

Toyota Land Cruiser

For now, the 20 Percent Club is indeed blessed with a sense of security. After all, if one's income is growing, it's likely to keep on doing so, at least for the foreseeable future. Yet the new global economic order, comprised of the super-rich, the Knowledge Class, and everybody else toiling away mostly to meet the needs and whims of the first two groups, may ultimately prove to be a destabilizing force for consumer capitalism. How long before this remarkably finite market becomes glutted with aromatic candles, custom-crafted leather chairs, and grow-your-own portabella mushroom kits? It seems we're recreating the conditions that led Marie Antoinette to make her legendary retort about starving peasants--except that their contemporary counterparts won't be offered cake, but Tuscan olive bread. CP

News intern Mary Ellen Egan contributed research for this story.

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